His good friend Dick Wilkens has begged young Ebenezer Scrooge to join him at Fezziwig’s Christmas Eve party. But Scrooge will have none of it. It’s the same people, the same dances, the same drinks, the same food as last year — only the cost goes up.
Oh, my, how close to the bone these lines from “A Christmas Carol” cut as the classic opens its 41st year at the Guthrie Theater. Young Ebenezer and his stage mates had best hope that the Minnesota populace does not share his ennui over an annual ritual of holiday, celebration and community.
Joe Chvala’s production opened Thursday night on the same dark, soot-stained representation of Victorian London, with the same brilliant costumes, pageantry, vaudeville, song and poignant moments. Chvala’s vigorous folk-dance choreography complements his unerring eye for balanced stage pictures.
The thin frivolity of the first act is redeemed by Scrooge’s transformation at show’s end and we are all wished a very Merry Christmas indeed.
All that is both the comfort and the challenge of a show whose performance depends as much on how we receive it as it does on the scenes that swirl before our eyes. Do we yearn for a solemn artistic emotion, or are we there for a good laugh, a night out with friends and family and maybe a nightcap?
There is nothing wrong with this “Christmas Carol” — there rarely ever is. Dickens saw to that. Even Mr. Magoo proved that in his magnificent portrayal on Broadway, captured in the 1962 cartoon (yes, this is tongue in cheek).
The Guthrie’s adaptation by playwright Crispin Whittell, now several years old, proposes that the fate of a small child — Tiny Tim specifically but all suffering children more broadly — are the stakes for Scrooge’s night of existential terror. After having the hellish miserliness scared out of him, Scrooge accepts his mortal responsibility of compassion.
Whittell’s version has always felt slim, which for some will be good news. He loves wordplay and jokes, which grab laughs but on occasion prevent scenes from fully landing in our hearts.
At the end of these 2½ hours, though, actor J.C. Cutler locates Scrooge’s repentance in a deeply emotional manner that eases the tomfoolery he’s been engaged in up to then.
Kris L. Nelson and Virginia Burke are the Cratchits, salt-of-the-earth working class folks. Nelson, particularly, has the kindest eyes.
Bear Brummel and Robert O. Berdahl return as Mr. Fred and Marley’s Ghost respectively. Katie Kleiger, who has emerged as a fine young actor at the Guthrie, broke through the production’s familiarity with characters (Belle, Mrs. Fred) who are lovely representations of decency.
And if you prefer Christmas ham rather than turkey, Jay Albright’s Fezziwig and Angela Timberman’s Meriweather will leave you more than stuffed and satisfied.
The Guthrie has massaged this production many times in the past 41 years. The show has expanded and contracted, depending on the director’s vision. So many Scrooges have graced the stage and so many Tiny Tims have grown into men.
The constancy, though, remains and we can thank Charles Dickens for building an unbreakable vessel that we fill with memory, hope and (for a season) the belief in a kinder future.